The Least, First

Monte Asbury's blog

My unrespectable hero (sermon of Sep 16, ’07)

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I loved preaching this sermon; even more, I loved preparing it. Discovering afresh who Jesus is and what his passions are still breathes life into my heart. May it serve you, so.

Two shepherds. Which best represents a Bible figure?

good-shepherd.jpgshepherd boy

Proper 19 (24) September 16, 2007
Luke 15:1-10; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Jeremiah 4:11-12,22-28; Psalm 14

We sang Cry of My Heart; Shout to the North; Above All; Be the Centre

And the sermon:

[With the opening of the Luke verses on the video screen, I moved between parts of the congregation, asking the people on one side to be the group described in the first verse. The first group’s job was to appear disreputable, which was really pretty funny.]

Luke 15

The Story of the Lost Sheep
1-3By this time a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently.

[disreputable appearances followed]
Now, those of you across the room, you act slide 2:

The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They growled, “He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends.” Their grumbling triggered this story

[looks of disdain – equally amusing!] So Jesus addresses this second group, in response to their grumbling about his choice of companions, and he tells them two stories that you know – but I think you’ll see some new mysteries in them today.

4-7″Suppose one of you had a hundred sheep and lost one. Wouldn’t you leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness [not home in the pen] and go after the lost one until you found it?

When found, you can be sure you would put it across your shoulders, rejoicing, and when you got home call in your friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Celebrate with me! I’ve found my lost sheep!’

Count on it—there’s more joy in heaven over one sinner’s rescued life than over ninety-nine good people in no need of rescue.

The Story of the Lost Coin

8-10″Or imagine a woman who has ten coins and loses one. Won’t she light a lamp and scour the house, looking in every nook and cranny until she finds it?

And when she finds it you can be sure she’ll call her friends and neighbors: ‘Celebrate with me! I found my lost coin!’ Count on it—that’s the kind of party God’s angels throw every time one lost soul turns to God.”

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

We get used to giving the right answers in church. Reminds me of the Sunday School boy who knew his teacher always asked questions that he could answer by raising his hand and calling out “Jesus!” One day his teacher held up a picture of a squirrel. “Children, who is this?” Little boy raises his hand. “Jesus! But it looks like a squirrel.”

I found this week that I thought I understood these stories more than I really did. For instance, I’d never seen them in their context – we’ve been following Jesus on the way to Jerusalem for weeks now – and what’s been startling about him? [Almost every story was about his interaction with someone despised or poor, or about him making up a story with someone despised or poor as the hero.]

This moment summarizes his conflict with the religious folk that’s been going on for story after story. Yet I had never noticed that.

Here’s another new idea to me:

We’re used to thinking of this story as it is on the left; but they would have thought of it as it is on the right:

good-shepherd.jpgshepherd boy

What do you see? Clean vs. grime. Robe vs. rags. Purposeful vs. trapped. Influential vs. disregarded.

And what we can’t see is that the people Jesus was talking to had strong opinions about shepherds. They thought of them as rootless and untrustworthy (see Swanson’s outstanding Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A storyteller’s commentary), they were not allowed to testify in court cases. They could not swear a legal oath. They could not vouch for anyone’s good character. In some countries, gypsies are regarded this way. When Jesus said, “Shepherd,” something like the young fellow on the right would have come to mind.

Yet clearly, Jesus is saying God is like that, too … They would have been appalled.

Some in the USA today despise Hispanic immigrants this way. Maybe if Jesus were telling it in this country, he and his crowd would drop by a church, and the church would be unhappy with the kind of people who came with him, and he’d turn and tell them a story that started like this: “Suppose one of you was an illegal immigrant …”

He’s giving a double challenge: casting his hearers as someone they despise, and then implying that God is like that.

And it’s no accident, for he does it again. In the 2nd story—about the lost coin—who’s he cast as God?

This is like going to Afghanistan, finding a Taliban chieftain, sitting down with the men around the campfire and saying, “Suppose you are a woman …” and then, “God is like that woman.” How’s that going down?

But then, go deeper. Let’s answer Jesus question.

Suppose you’re out in the wilderness with 99 sheep and you notice one is missing [see Swanson]. We town folks think you’ve got 99, you leave to find one, you’ve got a hundred. I’ll bet shepherds don’t think that. Anybody here ever take care of sheep? You leave 99 to find one, when you come back, wouldn’t there be a lot more than one missing?


Or in the story of the woman, the coin might have been part of a dowry. But you know that a woman in most cultures – especially a poor woman in a pre-technological culture – could never quite catch up with the huge load of physical work on her shoulders. She seems a little fanatical. Suppose you couldn’t find, say, your wedding pictures one morning. Will you call in to work and stay home till you find them?

Strange thing is, it seems like in both of these stories, the answer people would give is, “No! I wouldn’t leave the 99 to find one. No! I wouldn’t suspend life’s responsibilities to find a coin.”

But Jesus is saying God is like that.

And think of this – Jesus tells, in both stories, of celebrations breaking out in heaven every time a lost soul turns to God. And the Pharisees might agree. But there’s no evidence that any of these people hanging around Jesus HAVE turned to God!

To the Pharisees, they’d be valuable if they got their lives together and turned to God. But to Jesus, they’re just valuable, period.

So, what do we have? A story told to grumbling ultra-religious conservatives:

Which one of you, if you were an illegal alien working in a meat packing plant, and had all of your children with you but one who was still in Mexico, wouldn’t scrimp and save and leave the three children to go get the one that was left? And when they all get together, what a party there’ll be! And similarly, there’s joy in heaven ever time a sinner turns to God.

It is strange and uncomfortable. Let it be that.

Now we believe Jesus is God in the flesh – what God looks like when he is perfectly present in human form. What’s the most obvious thing about God to learn from these stories? [He’s focused on the poor and excluded.]

Does that fit what we’ve been watching Jesus do week after week? [Yup.]

Does that fit the story of the Triune God decided for Jesus to separate from the God-head and come to earth? [Yup.]

And if that is what God in human form does over and over and over again – it may be his primary activity – where would you expect to find people filled with his Spirit? [Out with the same people Jesus was with.]

There are two social circles in this story: the Pharisees have one social circle, and the Lord Jesus has another. The Pharisees pursue relationships mostly with people like themselves. The Lord Jesus, God demonstrating himself in human form, pursues relationships mostly with people who are utterly left out of their society.

Now, let’s put ourselves the story with this question: Is my circle of acquaintances more like the circle around Jesus, or the circle of the Pharisees?

If this is the main thing Jesus does, how am I doing at becoming like him? Is my reputation suffering because of the people I have chosen to love?

Is my heart big enough to throw off the weight of two thousand years of respectable Christian culture, and re-capture the shame of becoming like Jesus Christ?

Is there one step I could take this week?

Let’s close with the words of Paul, who felt this keenly:

1 Timothy 1:12-17

I’m so grateful to Christ Jesus for making me adequate to do this work. He went out on a limb, you know, in trusting me with this ministry. The only credentials I brought to it were invective and witch hunts and arrogance. But I was treated mercifully because I didn’t know what I was doing—didn’t know Who I was doing it against! Grace mixed with faith and love poured over me and into me. And all because of Jesus.

Here’s a word you can take to heart and depend on: Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. I’m proof—Public Sinner Number One—of someone who could never have made it apart from sheer mercy. And now he shows me off—evidence of his endless patience—to those who are right on the edge of trusting him forever.

Deep honor and bright glory to the King of All Time—

One God, Immortal, Invisible, ever and always. Oh, yes!

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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